Memorable Manitobans: William Sylvester Alpheus “Billy” Beal (1874-1968)
Community activist, photographer.
Born at Chelsea, Massachusets on 16 January 1874, son of Loretta H. Freeman and Charles R. Beal, he grew up at Minneapolis, Minnesota where he graduated from high school. He arrived in the Swan River area of Manitoba in 1906 to work as a steam engineer at a saw mill. He decided to stay, becoming the first African-American resident in an otherwise exclusively Caucasian community, residing there for almost 60 years. Beal was widely known for his breadth of interests, including carpentry, electronics, philosophy, astronomy, nutrition, and religion. He made electrified fences for cattle farmers, and furniture and toys which he gave to friends and neighbors. He is believed to have had some medical training, helping local doctors to administer vaccinations and carrying his own medical bag.
He was involved in the formation of the Big Woody School District in 1912 and was elected its first Secretary-Treasurer, holding that position for 37 years. He was instrumental in the establishment of a circulating library within the school system. He also served as the first secretary of the Big Woody Sunday School. He formed a literary society and debating teams; he directed plays, and organized poetry readings and musical concerts. A keen amateur photographer, a selection of his images were featured in a 1988 biography entitled Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal.
Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal by Robert Barrow and Leigh Hambly, Winnipeg: Vig Corps Press, 1988.
“Local book probes live of enigmatic northern photographer” by Donald Campbell, Winnipeg Free Press, 23 November 1988, page 38.
We thank Ernesto Griffith and Ken Fahrenschon for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 29 November 2020